Antisemitism in early Christianity

Antisemitism in early Christianity

The relationship between Christianity and antisemitism has a long history. Anti-Jewish sentiments have been expressed by many Christians over the last 2,000 years, but many other Christians, increasingly in recent years, have condemned these sentiments.

Early origins

There have been philosophical differences between Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism since the outset. Debates between the Early Christians - who at first understood themselves as a movement "within" Judaism, not as a separate religion - and other Jews initially revolved around the question whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or not, which also encompassed the issue of his divinity. Once gentiles were converted to Christianity, the question arose whether and how far these Gentile Christians were obliged to follow Jewish law in order to follow Jesus (see Paul's Letter to the Galatians). It was decided that gentiles did not have to follow Jewish law (see Antinomianism, Old Testament#Christian view of the Law), but Paul also questioned the validity of Jewish Christian's adherence to the Jewish law in relation to faith in Christ, see also Law and Gospel and Pauline Christianity.

The increase of the numbers of Gentile Christians in comparison to Jewish Christians eventually resulted in a rift between Christianity and Judaism, which was further increased by the Jewish-Roman wars (66–73 and 132–135) that drove Jews into the diaspora and further diminished Jewish Christians.

Also, the two religions differed in their legal status in the Roman Empire: Judaism, restricted to the Jewish people and Jewish Proselytes, was exempt from obligation to the Roman state religion and since the reign of Julius Caesar enjoyed the status of a "licit religion". Christianity however was not restricted to one people and as Jewish Christians were excluded from the synagogue, see Council of Jamnia, they also lost the protection of the status of Judaism. Since the reign of Nero Christianity was considered to be illegal and Christians were frequently subjected to persecution, differing regionally. In the third century systematic persecution of Christians began and lasted until Constantine's conversion to Christianity. In 390 Theodosius I made Christianity the new state religion. While pagan cults and Manichaeism were suppressed, Judaism retained its legal status as a licit religion, though anti-Jewish violence still occurred. In the fifth century, some legal measures worsened the status of the Jews in the Roman Empire.


The assimilation of Jews into majority non-Jewish culture is perhaps the single issue where Christians and Jews differ most sharply. The conversion of a Jewish born person to Christianity may be seen by Jews as a scourge ("silent Holocaust") and by some Christians as a "blessing from God" for the salvation of a non-Christian for their conversion to Christianity.


Perhaps best described as "religious anti-Semitism", anti-Judaism is a manifestation of a religious hostility toward Judaism, based in Christian religious doctrine. Some scholars of Jewish-Christian relations distinguish anti-Judaism from anti-Semitism, regarding the latter as opposition based solely on racial and ethnic considerations.

Although some Christians have considered anti-Judaism contrary to Christian teaching, it has historically been expressed by Christian leaders and laypersons. In many cases, the practical tolerance towards the Jewish religion and Jews prevailed. Some Christian groups, particularly in recent years, have condemned verbal Anti-Judaism.

This article begins by describing passages in the New Testament that some feel are anti-Judaist, as well as anti-Judaist statements and acts by the Church Fathers. It goes on to discuss developments in the 20th century, both promoting and opposing anti-Semitism.

During the past 1800 years, many Christians have had anti-Jewish attitudes. Some historians and many Jews hold that for most of its history, most of Christianity was openly anti-Semitic and that the severity, type and extent of this anti-Semitism have varied much over time; the earliest form was theological anti-Judaism.

Some apparently anti-Jewish ideas present among Christians are not a result of specific anti-Jewish Biblical ideals, but instead a manifestation of Christian rejection of other religions as alternative ways to God. In this sense, Christianity owes a debt of gratitude for the past, yet asserts that the time of Judaism is past, therefore invalidating Judaism as a viable means of salvation.

William Nicholls wrote in his book "Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate":

"...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world, continuing to believe in the faithfulness of God to the original covenant ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility." [William Nicholls: "Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate" (Jason Aronson, 1993) ISBN 1-56821-519-3. p.90]

Anti-Semitism and the New Testament

Some Jews consider certain passages of the New Testament, especially those blaming Jews for Jesus' execution and those suggesting that Christianity supersedes Judaism, as anti-Semitic.Fact|date=February 2007 A number of elements of the New Testament may be considered anti-Semitic given a certain interpretive approach. Among them are:
* the explication of the Jewish role in the Passion of Jesus. This is exemplified by I Thessalonians 2:14-15::For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men.
* the assertion that the Jewish covenant with God has been superseded by a New Covenant.
* criticisms of the Pharisees.
* criticisms of Jewish parochialism or particularism.

These elements of the New Testament have their origins in first-century history. Christianity began as a revision of Judaism. Many of Jesus's followers during his life were Jews, and it was even a matter of confusion, many years after his death, as to whether non-Jews could even be considered Christians at all, according to the way some interpret the Council of Jerusalem.

Although the Gospels offer accounts of confrontations and debates between Jesus and other Jews, such conflicts were common among Jews at the time. Scholars disagree on the historicity of the Gospels, and have offered different interpretations of the complex relationship between Jewish authorities and Christians before and following Jesus's death. These debates hinge on the meaning of the word "messiah," and the claims of Early Christians.

Rejection of Jesus as the Messiah

The Gospels make several claims about Jesus: that he was a preacher, faith healer, messiah. The first two claims describe roles popular in first century Judea; were Jesus principally a preacher and healer, there is no reason to think he would have come into conflict with Jewish authorities. The claim that he was the messiah, however, is more controversial. The Hebrew word "mashiyakh" (משיח) typically signified "king" — a man, chosen by God or descended from a man chosen by God, to serve as a civil and military authority. The real Hebrew word for "king" is "melech", Mem lamed chaf.Fact|date=April 2007 If Jesus made this claim during his life, it is not surprising that many Jews, weary of Roman occupation, would have supported him as a liberator. It is also likely that Jewish authorities would have been cautious, out of fear of Roman reprisal.

Jesus was considered by Christians to be the Messiah, while for most Jews the death of Jesus would have been sufficient proof that he was not the Messiah. If early Christians preached that Jesus was about to return, it is virtually certain that Jewish authorities would have opposed them out of fear of Roman reprisal.

Such fears would have been well grounded: Jews revolted against the Romans in 66 CE, which culminated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They revolted again under the leadership of the professed messiah Simon Bar Kokhba in 132 CE, which culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from the Land of Israel, which Hadrian renamed into Palestine to wipe out memory of Jews there.

At the time, Christianity was still considered a sect of Judaism, but the messianic claims alienated many Christians (including Jewish converts) and sharply deepened the schism.

Observance of Jewish law

Another source of tension between early Christians and Jews was the question of observance of Jewish law. Early Christians were divided over this issue: Some Jewish Christians, among which were converts from the party of the Pharisees, believed that Christians had to be Jews and observe Jewish law, while Paul argued that Christians did not have to observe all of Jewish law, and did not have to be circumcised, which was a requirement for male Jews. The issue was settled in the Council of Jerusalem, in which Paul and Barnabas participated as representatives of the church at Antioch. The Council decided that they would not subject Gentile converts to the complete Law of Moses nor circumcision, but ordered them to stay away from eating meat with blood still on it, eating the meat of strangled animals, eating food offered to idols, and sexual immorality. See also Noahide Law and Proselyte.

Some scholars (influenced by Martin Luther) have interpreted Paul's writings as rejecting the validity of Jewish law, see Antinomianism. A small number of historians suggest that Paul accepted the authority of the law, but understood that it excluded non-Jews. This is not a generally accepted view. See Proselyte and New Perspective on Paul.

Conversion of Gentiles to Judaism

A common misunderstanding of Judaism and the Bible is the claim that although Gentiles could convert to Judaism and thus be included, they could enter this covenant with God only by being Jewish. This is simply incorrect, see Proselyte, Noahide Law, Council of Jerusalem, and Christianity and Judaism. Some say that by replacing the written law (the Torah) with Christ as the sign of the covenant, Paul sought to transform Judaism into a universal religion. It is evident that Paul saw himself as a Jew, but other Jews rejected this universalism; after Paul's death, Christianity emerged as a separate religion, and Pauline Christianity emerged as the dominant form of Christianity, especially after Paul, James and the other apostles agreed on a compromise set of requirements (Acts 15). Some Christians continued to adhere to Jewish law, but they were few in number and often considered heretics by the Church. One example is the Ebionites, which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, were "infected with Judaistic errors" (language which Jews find offensive); for instance, they denied the virgin birth of Jesus, the physical Resurrection of Jesus, and most of the books that were later canonized as the New Testament, see also Judaizers. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox are often accused of being Judaizers because they still observe Old Testament teachings such as the Sabbath, and conversely they accuse their opponents of residual Marcionism. See also Cafeteria Christianity.

Criticism of the Pharisees

Many New Testament passages criticise the Pharisees; it has been argued that these passages have shaped the way that Christians have viewed Jews. Like most Bible passages, however, they can and have been interpreted in a variety of ways.

During Jesus's life and at the time of his execution, the Pharisees were only one of several Jewish groups such as the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes; indeed, some have suggested that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. Arguments by Jesus and his disciples against the Pharisees and what he saw as their hypocrisy were most likely examples of disputes among Jews and internal to Judaism that were common at the time. (Lutheran Pastor John Stendahl has pointed out that "Christianity begins as a kind of Judaism, and we must recognize that words spoken in a family conflict are inappropriately appropriated by those outside the family.")

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, however, the Pharisees emerged as the principal form of Judaism (also called "Rabbinic Judaism"). All major modern Jewish movements consider themselves descendants of Pharasaic Judaism; as such, Jews are especially sensitive to criticisms of "Pharisees" as a group.

At the same time that the Pharisees came to represent Judaism as a whole, Christianity came to seek, and attract, more non-Jewish converts than Jewish converts. Within a hundred years or so the majority of Christians were non-Jews without any significant knowledge of Judaism (although until about 1000, there was an active Jewish component of Christianity). Many of these Christians often read these passages not as internal debates among Jews but as the basis for a Christian rejection of Judaism.

Moreover, it was only during the Rabbinic era that Christianity would compete exclusively with Pharisees for converts and over how to interpret the Hebrew Bible (during Jesus's lifetime, the Sadducees were the dominant Jewish faction). Some scholars have argued that some passages of the Gospels were written (or re-written) at this time to emphasize conflict with the Pharisees. These scholars observe that the portrait of the Pharisees in the Gospels is strikingly different from that provided in Rabbinic sources, and suggest that New Testament Pharisees are a caricature and literary foil for Christianity. At a time when Christians were only seeking converts, and had no political power in the Roman Empire and were in fact persecuted extensively, such a caricature may not have been in any meaningful sense "anti-Judaist." But once Christianity was established as the religion of the Empire, and Christians enjoyed political domination over Europe, this caricature could be used to incite or justify oppression of Jews.

Some have also suggested that the Greek word "Ioudaioi" could also be translated "Judaeans", meaning in some cases specifically the Jews from Judaea, as opposed to people from Galilee or Samaria for instance. Fact|date=February 2007

Recent trends

In recent years teachers in a few Christian denominations have begun to teach that readers should understand the New Testament's seeming attacks on Jews as specific charges aimed at certain Jewish leaders of that time, and upon attitudes displayed by many, inside and outside Judaism. Fact|date=February 2007

However, Professor Lillian C. Freudmann, author of "Antisemitism in the New Testament" (University Press of America, 1994) has published a detailed study of the treatment of Jews in the New Testament, and the historical effects that such passages have had in the Christian community throughout history. Similar studies of such verses have been made by both Christian and Jewish scholars, including, Professors Clark Williamsom (Christian Theological Seminary), Hyam Maccoby (The Leo Baeck Institute), Norman A. Beck (Texas Lutheran College), and Michael Berenbaum (Georgetown University). Most rabbis feel that these verses are anti-Semitic, and many liberal Christian scholars (including clergy), in America and Europe, have reached the same conclusion.

The Bar Kokhba rebellion

The destruction of the Second Temple contributed to the growth of both the early church and rabbinic Judaism. Demoralized after such a loss of Jewish national and religious life, people were grasping for something to believe in. Hope in a Messiah to save the people from the oppression of Rome began to grow.

In 132 C.E., Simon Bar Kokhba ("Son of the Star'), previously known as Simon Ben Cosiba, was endorsed by the leading Jewish intellectual of the time, Rabbi Akiba, to be the promised Messiah. Many people were skeptical, but the rabbis followed Akiba's precedent and hailed him as the Messiah. Bar Kochba led a revolt against Rome in 135 C.E. One segment of the population, however, refused to join in the revolt and wage war under the banner of Bar Kochba _ the Jews who had believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Bar Kochba killed a number of them, seeing them as enemies, heretics and traitors to the national cause.

Outraged at this, the growing Mediterranean church began to harbor bitterness against the Jewish people.

The Church Fathers

In the second century, theologians and church fathers became more concerned with "making the break" with anything Jewish, beginning to take an uncompromising posture of theological and political opposition. Blanket policies condemning Jews began to color New Testament interpretation. Some examples are:

the promises of blessing to Israel in the Hebrew scriptures are now the exclusive property of the Church; God has cursed and rejected Israel, and now the Church is the "true" or "new" Israel; and the Jews killed Jesus; all Jews everywhere forever are responsible for his death. Within the writings of the church fathers (called "patristic" writings) were three main types which proved to be damaging to Jewish-Christian relations not only at the time they were composed (and sometimes read aloud to Christian congregations) but also in centuries following, as they were often used as a justification for anti-Jewish sentiment and, in the case of John Chrysostom's virulent anti-Jewish sermons, even anti-Jewish legislation:

*Dialogue - Served to propagate Christian teaching. One of the earliest (mid-second century) and most important sources is the Dialogue of the church father Justin Martyr with Trypho the Jew. In this dialogue, Trypho is portrayed as being very impressed by Justin Martyr's arguments and nearly coming to accept them.
*Testimony - Collections of Old Testament texts the purpose of which was to prove different claims connected with the person of Christ and the call of the Gentiles. Served as a "handy compendium of arguments for possible controversies" with Jews.

An example is that of the third century African church father, Cyprian, The Testimonies against the Jews.
*Sermons or homilies - A group of writings which was "especially directed against the Jews" (Parkes, 71). They served to warn Christians of the dangers of associating with the Jewish people and were developed as an absolute condemnation of the Jewish people, religion, and cultural practices. Example: Church Father John Chrysostom _ Adversus Judaeos, eight sermons preached at Antioch in 386-388 (Parkes, 119).

The following statements have been used to justify persecution of Jews. Many of the following people were recognized as saints by the Church; none of them advocated physical violence or murder, sometimes arguing, like Augustine, that the Jews should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Christ.
* Eusebius of Caesarea, in 325, blames the calamities which befell the Jewish nation on the Jews' role in the death of Jesus: "that from that time seditions and wars and mischievous plots followed each other in quick succession, and never ceased in the city and in all Judea until finally the siege of Vespasian overwhelmed them. Thus the divine vengeance overtook the Jews for the crimes which they dared to commit against Christ." [Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History: Book II, Chapter 6: The Misfortunes which overwhelmed the Jews after their Presumption against Christ]
* Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397) - A bishop was accused of instigating the burning of a synagogue by an anti-Semitic mob, and Emperor Theodosius was preparing to order the bishop to rebuild it. Ambrose discouraged the Emperor from taking this step because it would appear to show special favoritism to the Jews: (1) no action was taken against those responsible for burning the houses of various wealthy individuals in Rome; (2) no action was taken against those responsible for the recent burning of the house of the Bishop of Constantinople; (3) Jews had caused several Christian basilicas to be burnt during the reign of Julian, yet had never been asked to make reparation, and some of those basilicas were still not rebuilt. Ambrose asked that Christian monies not be used to build a place of worship for unbelievers, heretics or Jews, and reminded Ambrose that some Christian laity had said of Emperor Maximus, "he has become a Jew" because of the edict Maximus issued regarding the burning of a Roman synagogue. Ambrose did not oppose punishing those directly responsible for burning the synagogue. He halted the celebration of the Eucharist until Theodosius agreed to end the investigation without requiring reparations to be made by the bishop. [From the 40th and 41st Epistles of St. Ambrose of Milan. [ Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on Ambrose] ]
* Augustine of Hippo in Book 18, Chapter 46, of "The City of God" wrote "The Jews who slew Him [Jesus] , and would not believe in Him, because it behoved Him to die and rise again, were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands (so that indeed there is no place where they are not), and are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ." [ [ The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus] by Philip Schaff]

: Augustine deems the survival and the scattering of the Jews as willed by God for them to give testimony everywhere that the prophecies that Christians interpret as proving that Jesus is the Messiah are no Christian invention, being preserved also by what he calls the Church's enemies, the Jews. Thus, he says, the survival and scattering of the Jews fulfils the prophecy: "My God hath shown me concerning mine enemies, that Thou shalt not slay them, lest they should at last forget Thy law: disperse them in Thy might."
* Ephraim the Syrian wrote polemics against Jews in the fourth century, including the repeated accusation that Satan dwells among them as a partner. These writings were directed at Christians who were being proselytized by Jews and who Ephraim feared were slipping back into the religion of Judaism; thus he portrayed the Jews as enemies of Christianity, like Satan, to emphasize the contrast between the two religions, namely, that Christianity was Godly and true and Judaism was Satanic and false. Like John Chrysostom, his objective was to dissuade Christians from reverting to Judaism by emphasizing what he saw as the wickedness of the Jews and their religion. [ [ Ephraim the Syrian and his polemics against Jews] ] [ [ Analysis of Ephraim's writings] ]
* In his "Dialog of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew", the Christian scholar Justin Martyr advanced arguments for the truth of Christianity and wrote to his imaginary Jewish opponent: "You think that these words refer to the stranger and the proselytes, but in fact they refer to us who have been illumined by Jesus. For Christ would have borne witness even to them; but now you are become twofold more the children of Hell, as He said Himself." [ [ Early Church Fathers: Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, 14 Vols.] By Philip Schaff, ed. (Hendrickson Publishers)]
* Saint Jerome (374-419) - He denounced Jews as "Judaic serpents of whom Judas was the model". In his "The Jews in the Roman Empire" ("Les Juifs dan L'Empire Romain") [Is this really a work by Jerome, or a modern history?] he wrote: "The Jews seek nothing but to have children, possess riches and be healthy. They seek all earthly things, but think nothing of heavenly things; for this reason they are mercenaries."
* Saint John Chrysostom (c. 344 - 407) - wrote of the Jews and of Judaizers in eight homilies "Adversus Judaeos", "Against The Jews" (or "Against the Judaizers"). [ [ Saint John Chrysostom: Eight Homilies Against the Jews] (Medieval Sourcebook) These quotes are translations from the original Greek posted by Paul Halsall: other researchers give slightly different translations.]

: "Shall I tell you of their plundering, their covetousness, their abandonment of the poor, their thefts, their cheating in trade? the whole day long will not be enough to give you an account of these things. But do their festivals have something solemn and great about them? They have shown that these, too, are impure." (Homily I, VII, 1): "But before I draw up my battle line against the Jews, I will be glad to talk to those who are members of our own body, those who seem to belong to our ranks although they observe the Jewish rites and make every effort to defend them. Because they do this, as I see it, they deserve a stronger condemnation than any Jew." (HOMILY IV, II, 4): "Are you Jews still disputing the question? Do you not see that you are condemned by the testimony of what Christ and the prophets predicted and which the facts have proved? But why should this surprise me? That is the kind of people you are. From the beginning you have been shameless and obstinate, ready to fight at all times against obvious facts." (HOMILY V, XII, 1)
* Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (467-533) - In his "Writings", written about 510 CE, he states "Hold most firmly and doubt not that not all the pagans, but also all the Jews, heretic and schismatics who depart from the present life outside the Catholic Church, are about to go into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (See also: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.)


ee also

* Antisemitism
* Deicide
* Good Friday Prayer
* History of antisemitism
* Jews in the New Testament
* Judaism
* Judas Iscariot
* Passion of the Christ
* Persecution of Christians
* Pre-Adamite
* Religious pluralism
* Criticisms of Christianity

External links

* [ Dabru Emet]
* [ Relations between Christians and Jews]
* [ Christian anti-Semitism]
* [ Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaism]
* [ Catholic Encyclopedia: History of the Jews]
* [ Jews and Christians in Search of a Common Religious Basis for Contributing Towards a Better World]
* [ Southern Baptist views on Judaism and other faiths]
* [ "Judaism and Christianity" by Dr. Warren Carroll]
* [ Attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, and responses]
* [ Antisemitism and Eastern Orthodoxy]
* [ "Historian's Accusations Against Wartime Holy See Are Refuted" 21 November 2002]
* [ Yad VaShem's "Righteous Among the Nations"]
* [ Catholic Timeline on Antisemitism]
* [ Mainline churches launch a policy to punish Israel] by Eugene Kontorovich, in the Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2005.
* [ The beginnings of Christian Anti-Semitism] Judeophobia (Jew Hate) in Early Christian thought. Judeophobia - History and analysis of Antisemitism, Jew-Hate and anti-"Zionism". By Gustavo Perednik (

Further reading

* "Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate" by William Nicholls, 1993. Published by Jason Aronson Inc., 1995.
* "Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testament" Norman A. Beck, Susquehanna Univ. Press, 1985
* "The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and development of mystical anti-Semitism" Joel Carmichael, Fromm, 1993
* "The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity" John G. Gager, Oxford Univ. Press, 1983
* "What Did They Think of the Jews?" Edited by Allan Gould, Jason Aronson Inc., 1991
* "The New Testament's Anti-Jewish Slander and Conventions of Ancient Polemic", Luke Johnson, Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 3, 1989
* "Three Popes and the Jews" Pinchas E. Lapide, Hawthorne Books, 1967
* "National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church" Nathaniel Micklem, Oxford Univ. Press, 1939
* Theological Anti-Semitism in the New Testament", Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christian Century, Feb. 1968, Vol. 85
* "John Chrysostom and the Jews" Robert L. Wilken, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1983
* [ "Anti-Semitism in the Church?" by Julio Dam]

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